By Joshua Benton
For 3,339 Texas third-graders, a single question – and a surprise rule change – appears to be the difference between a stress-free spring and possibly being held back.
With little fanfare, the Texas Education Agency last month raised the number of questions students had to get right on the third-grade reading TAKS – the test students are supposed to pass to move on to fourth grade.
All the way up to test day (March 3) teachers were told that students had to answer 22 of the test’s 36 questions correctly to pass. But students performed so well that TEA raised the cutoff to 23 after the test was taken.
That meant that the 3,339 students who got exactly 22 questions right were suddenly below the bar and facing possible retention. That doesn’t sit too well with some teachers.
Cherie Luckett, a reading specialist at Mesquite’s Seabourn Elementary, worked with 30 third-graders whom the school considered at risk of failing this year. Three of them scored exactly 22.
“He worked and worked and worked and worked,” she said of one boy. On test day, “he took all day to read those stories – slowly, over and over. He worked hard enough to get 22 right. It’s very hurtful when he doesn’t pass it because they changed the rules.”
One of the three students was Cedric Tatum. He failed the third-grade TAKS last year and was retained. Last month, he got 22 questions right.
“I was hurt,” said his mother, Lakisha Williams. “He was disappointed. He was scared, wondering, ‘Are they going to put me in third grade again?'”
“I was frustrated, but I couldn’t show him. I told him, ‘You did a good job. I know you worked hard. You’re doing your best.'”
State officials say the change was an essential part of “equating,” a statistical review all state tests undergo.
“The adjustments … were not done to make the test harder or easier to pass,” wrote education commissioner Shirley Neeley in a letter sent to districts Tuesday. “Rather they were necessary to ensure that students were required to meet the same standard” as last year.
The State Board of Education originally set the TAKS’ cut scores back in November 2002. Since the board wanted to phase in the tougher TAKS (which replaced the TAAS), it created a sliding scale.
In 2003, third-graders would need to get 20 of the test’s 36 questions right to pass. That would move to 22 in 2004 and 24 in 2005.
But last fall, TEA posted a document on its Web site labeling the cut scores as “approximate” – a term that had not been used on information distributed earlier to educators.
After students took the test last month, TEA “equated” it – meaning it compared the exam’s difficulty to the previous year’s version of TAKS. (A little variation is normal from year to year, they say, because the same questions can’t be used multiple times.) They determined that this year’s test was slightly easier than last year’s.
Overall, 91 percent of the state’s 266,700 third-graders passed the reading test this year. That’s up from 89 in 2003, even with the higher passing bar.
For those 3,339 third-graders, the change will have real consequences. State rules require them to undergo intensive small-group reading instruction until April 28, when they will retake the TAKS. If they fail again, they get one final chance this summer.
Those who still haven’t passed will have to repeat third grade, unless the child’s parent, teacher and principal agree to move him along.